Asking the tough questions on legalizing pot

Marijuana plants grow in a vegetable garden in Lake County last August.
Marijuana plants grow in a vegetable garden in Lake County last August. Los Angeles Times file

A blue ribbon commission led by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom deserves a pat on the back for taking a thoughtful approach to a likely 2016 initiative to legalize marijuana in California.

In its first major progress report, the panel called Thursday for detailed study on issues such as how to tax marijuana in a fair way that eliminates the black market, how to determine driving under the influence of marijuana, and how to protect children and teenagers.

That last priority is a central concern, the panel said in its 18-page report, because it’s clear that non-medical marijuana, while technically illegal even for adults, is easily available to young people. It cites the 2014 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which found that 34 percent of 10th-graders and 44 percent of 12th-graders had used marijuana.

Weighing potential pitfalls while crafting a ballot measure is far preferable to trying to fix them after it passes. Exhibit A is Proposition 47, the initiative passed by voters in November to divert nonviolent offenders from prisons. It has caused all manner of unintended consequences, including DNA samples not being collected and drug-treatment courts being undermined.

Newsom, who backed Prop. 47, told a member of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board that it reinforces for him the need to explore tough questions now and not ask “what the heck just happened” later. Of course, it’s also in the self-interest of legalization proponents to make sure their ballot measure is as airtight as possible.

Critics pointed out all sorts of flaws in Proposition 19, the legalization measure in 2010, before voters rejected it. And problems have been documented in Colorado and Washington since those states legalized marijuana in 2012.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of a 2016 ballot measure doesn’t take the Legislature off the hook for California’s medical marijuana mess. More than 18 years after voters approved Proposition 215, there are still inadequate statewide regulations. A potential compromise failed last year, leaving in place a muddle of local rules, putting consumers and workers at risk and allowing marijuana far beyond “compassionate use.”

Thursday’s report starts the public phase of the blue ribbon panel, which was convened by the American Civil Liberties Union of California in October 2013 and includes well-known legal and academic experts. It’s essential that in its fact-finding, the commission also hear from law enforcement officials and business leaders who oppose legalization. Newsom pledges that will happen.

The panel plans to hold public forums in Los Angeles in April, San Francisco in May, Fresno in June, and probably in Humboldt County next month. It is scheduled to issue recommendations by August. Newsom says he expects some of them to be specific, including the legal age and the kind of tax, but other issues to be left for further deliberation.

Newsom, who has already kicked off his 2018 campaign for governor, is the highest-ranking state official to come out in favor of legal marijuana. It’s probably smart, politically. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday found the highest backing for legalization – 53 percent of residents – since it started asking the question in 2010.

But Newsom says he won’t support “just anything” that polls well, and won’t settle for an initiative that doesn’t improve California’s status quo on marijuana.

He is absolutely right to say that legalization has to be done right and that voters should have a full picture of the repercussions before casting their ballots. By raising key issues now, the blue ribbon panel is playing a useful role.